Weekly Davar: Shemos 2023

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Davar Thought

The slavery in Egypt began with, ‘a new king arose who did not know of Joseph’. But how could a king not know of Joseph, the saviour of Egypt and indeed the entire world? It had been no more than a couple of decades. Who could possibly not know about such a person in recent history? It would be like a new Prime Minister in the UK who had never heard of Winston Churchill.

The Sages tell us that of course he knew of Joseph, but he chose not to. Because you can’t feel grateful to Joseph, on the one hand, and enslave his grandchildren with the other. In fact, there are those among the Sages who suggest that it was the very same Pharaoh for whom Joseph had worked. He lost his sense of gratitude for Joseph and, ended up enslaving his descendants.

In my mind, you can never go wrong with gratitude – and you are almost guaranteed to go wrong when you lose a sense of it. The feeling of gratitude grounds you. Had Pharaoh felt gratitude for what Joseph had done for Egypt, he would never have done what he did. The starting point for his actions was the loss of sense of gratitude. Even if he had indeed been afraid that the Children of Israel may form a fifth column in Egypt, had he felt gratitude, he would have responded differently. He would have found a kinder way to deal with the problem. Once he had lost his gratitude, however, it was open season.

Sad to say, I think the same is true of Prince Harry. If his starting point was gratitude for his family, it would ground him differently. He might have his gripes, his frustrations and his disappointments. But gratitude would provide a very different context for his response and lead him to do so with grace and generosity – even whilst addressing issues that are deeply upsetting for him.

Once gratitude has gone, however, there is no limit to how badly people can behave.

Parents are another example. When people lose the base line of gratitude for their parents, they can treat their parents very badly, even cut them out of their lives entirely. They will have all sorts of rationalizations as to the bad things their parents have done, but it will have all started with a loss of gratitude, which left the door open to any and all behaviour.

I don’t always succeed, but I have a commitment to keeping gratitude at the forefront of all my relationships, God included. Unfortunately, it’s not difficult to lose gratitude. But I am very clear where that would lead me and I’m determined not to allow it to happen. If we keep our eye on the ball of gratitude, all other balls tend to fall into place in our lives and we will find ourselves being the people that we want ourselves to be. When we lose track of gratitude, it’s a very slippery slope. It might not lead us to enslaving an entire nation, but it won’t lead anywhere good.

Shabbat Shalom,

Shaul

Parsha in a Nutshell

Egypt is the prototype for future Jewish settlement. Firstly, the Jews move out to the suburbs, in this case Goshen. Then they become successful. Then they assimilate into Egyptian society and make vast contributions. Then social acceptance and complete integration, right? Not quite. A new Pharaoh arises and the persecution begins.

A child is born who is to be the saviour of the Jewish nation. Saved by Pharaoh’s daughter, he is brought up as a prince. She names him Moses. He does not forget his origins and, when confronted with an Egyptian murdering a Jew, he kills the Egyptian and flees deep into Africa. Many years later, God appears to him at a burning bush. After some arm-twisting, Moses agrees to return to Egypt to lead the Jewish people to freedom. Not surprisingly, Pharaoh, none too enamoured with the idea of his slaves leaving, decides to put down the potential mutiny before it begins and significantly increases the workload on the Jewish slaves. Again, not surprisingly, the Jews are unimpressed with Moses’ efforts so far and the portion ends with him in everyone’s bad books – part and parcel of being a Jewish leader.

Weekly Davar: Ki Savo 2022

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Davar Thought

Jewish law demanded that every farmer bring the first fruit produced by each of his trees to Jerusalem as an offering to God. It would be consumed by the priests as God’s representatives. (God himself is not a big fruit eater.)

The person bringing the offering read a beautiful text from this week’s portion. It traces the history of the Jewish People from our original forefathers, through becoming a nation, the slavery in Egypt, followed by redemption and the gift of a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’. Its theme is that of gratitude.

I rent a cherry tree for my family every year in Kent (rentacherrytree.co.uk). We go to the orchard in July and pick around 15kg of the most delicious cherries that have ever existed – from just one tree! There is really something special about seeing hundreds of trees whose boughs are bending from the weight of the fruit upon them. There is a feeling of the richness of God’s creation, the vast blessing and abundance of our wonderful planet earth.

It’s a flavour of the feeling that a farmer with an orchard would have had in Israel a few thousand years ago. The Torah says that the farmer should take that good feeling and direct it towards gratitude. Because, from Torah’s perspective, there is very little more important and more precious in the human experience than gratitude.

I, for one, am a very big fan. I love the way gratitude feels and I love being able to express it to other people – even if I am a fallible human being who is regularly remiss in doing so!

There are so many laws in the Torah associated with gratitude – the first fruits being an obvious one. Honouring parents is, of course, another.

In essence, gratitude means taking that which you have been given and giving back part of it – as in the first fruits. If someone got you out of prison and hence gave you your time back, gratitude would mean spending some of that time to help him if he asked. If someone helped you to make money, gratitude would mean buying something that he needed with some of the money that you made. If someone introduced you to your spouse, gratitude would mean giving up some of your time with that spouse to assist him at a time of need. Gratitude is all about giving back when you have been given to, not simply saying ‘thank you’.

Living in a feeling of gratitude is one of life’s great pleasures – perhaps even its greatest. So, my principle is to look for gratitude wherever I can find it. And once I’ve found it, try to live it. Start doing so and you will find the potential for it around every corner.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

Although other issues are discussed as well, the bulk of this portion is devoted to a detailed account of the consequences of the Jewish people not fulfilling their destiny of being a ‘light to the nations’. People often look at it as God threatening to punish the Jewish people if they do not follow his commands. However, ‘cause and effect’ is a much better model. God says to us, so to speak: my children – make the world Godly and it will be a beautiful place to live. Fail to do so – and it will swallow you alive.

Gratitude in Judaism

Reading Time: 3 minutes

If we want to teach our children to be happy, which I assume as parents, we all do, we need to teach them, above all else, to be grateful. 

We all know, intuitively, that gratitude is at the core of educating our children. From when they begin to speak, we teach them to say, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and we spend years, if not decades reminding them. No one likes a ‘spoilt brat’ – a child with no gratitude. We all know it’s so important, but why is that the case?

Because without gratitude, there is no joy in life.

Let’s take two children. One has not learnt to feel gratitude and the other has. The first is taken on a five-star holiday to Disneyworld in Orlando – every kid’s dream, but because he does not know how, he feels no gratitude. The second is taken on an outing to a park in his home city and, because he does know how, he feels a deep sense of gratitude. Which child enjoys his experience more? 

Gratitude is what enables us to enjoy. Without gratitude it doesn’t matter how much a child is given, he or she will not enjoy it. With gratitude, it doesn’t matter how little a child is given, he or she will very much enjoy it. I believe that the greatest gift we can give our children is the gift of knowing how to be grateful. It is the most precious of all teachings. 

Gratitude is part of the Ten Commandments. It is the essence and purpose of Commandment number five, honouring our parents. How we treat our parents is the most telling sign of how grateful we feel. How a society treats its elderly is the most telling sign of how much gratitude is present in that society. 

I often tell my children that gratitude is in the feeling not the words. A ‘thank you’ said out of rote is not gratitude. Recently, I gave my daughter something and she said, ‘cool’ in a very excited way. I asked her what about saying thank you. She responded that gratitude was in the feeling, not the words and I realised that her excitement and expression of joy at what I had given her was indeed a more meaningful gratitude than the actual word she used. We want to teach our children to feel gratitude, not go through the motions of using the right words. Of course, words are an important way to express feelings and perhaps, even in this case, my daughter should have said ‘thank you’. But that was secondary to me. So much more important to me was that she understood the essence of gratitude and she felt it in her heart.

This is what we want for our children – to teach them to be feelers of gratitude, not just sayers of gratitude. That requires a little more than telling them to say their pleases and thank-yous. 

Judaism is a firm believer in education by example. Children learn from role models above all else. And we, our parents, need to do our best to be those role models and practice what we preach. 

My wife has always taught me that if we want our children to look after us when we are old, we need to set them an example of doing so for our own parents. That’s not the reason to look after our own parents, of course, but there is a side benefit. If we are grateful to our parents and treat them with the honour they very much deserve, perhaps our children will do the same for us. So often, I have seen parents neglecting their parents in order to give to their children and grandchildren. Not only is this a lack of gratitude, it is a strategy that will surely misfire. When the children get older, they have learnt from their own parents to give their time to their children and neglect their parents. 

Living in gratitude is something we must share with our children, work on together with them, show them that it’s important for us, as much as it is for them. If we want them to learn, we need them to see that we are eager to learn ourselves also. This is true of anything in life and it is certainly true of gratitude. 

I hope that this thought will enable parents and children to work together to deepen their gratitude as a family, as well as individuals. And that the true joy that gratitude brings in its wake will lift families from the challenges of recent times to a brighter and more beautiful future.